About a year ago, I was talking with a friend and he was telling me about how most of his seedling he had worked so hard to start, didn’t make it in his garden. I asked him if he had hardened them off and received a blank stare followed by, “Not really.”
There is a fine art to making the transition from the protected interiors of the house where seeds are started under controlled conditions some including grow lights and warming mats. No winds or outside predators to harm our little ones – yet. Some people introduce a small oscillating fan inside to mimic a small breeze. This isn’t necessary to do. If you have been doing your job raising your seedlings, you know you have been controlling the light, temperature and water very consistently. Then comes the time when the weather has warmed enough for you to start thinking it’s time to make the transfer to the garden.
But hold on there! If you walk those little babies straight out to the garden and plant them right away – they won’t make it. The transition will be too much on their young developing little systems to be able to withstand the transfer, so they go into shock and die.
You need to slow down and gradually get your seedlings acclimated to their new environment. You need to ease them into things, much like the way you do when you get a new fish. You don’t through it right into the fish tank right away. You ease it in by allowing the bag with the fish in it to sit in the existing tank water so that the temperature of the bag water will slowly adjust to the temperature of the tank water. During this process the fish is being acclimated to his new temperature environment, so that when he is released into the tank he doesn’t do into shock and die.
So, the plants that have been sitting under these ideal conditions are about to be introduced to new temperature, wind and soil conditions that you don’t control but Mother Nature does for the most part. I don’t mean to insinuate that we don’t control some of the outdoor elements. We are firm practitioners of raised bed gardening, so we do our best to control the soil environment in which we grow our plants; however, we don’t control the soil temperature in those outdoor beds.
I like to look at hardening off our seedlings much like the way my father would get into the ocean when he would take us on vacations when I was growing up. He would dip a toe or two in, then back up back to dry land. Then he would take a few more steps in up to his ankles with hands were up above his heads this whole time. He would stand there and then lower his arms to splash some water onto his arms. The entire time trying to slowly adjust to the cool temperature of the ocean, so it wouldn’t shock his system. Once he did this he would take a few more steps in before diving in.
The first days you decide to take your plants out, are like my Dad dipping his feet into the water initially and then backing back to the dry sand. The first days outside are simply field trips – no overnights yet. I suggest that even before venturing outside with your seedlings, that if you have been using warming mats that these have been turned off a few days before hand if you haven’t turned them off already. This helps to ease the soil temperature from 75 degrees down to 66-70 degrees, depending on what your home interior temperature is set to.
The first day outside, protect your seedlings by placing them in a box which will help protect them from some of the elements, but you should look to place them in an area protected from the wind and is not in direct sunlight. The seedlings are not ready for direct wind or sunshine yet. I have a screened in porch I use to in CT where I have started thousands of seeds. I put my tray on a table I know will receive indirect sunlight and is protected from the winds. Wind is an important consideration as the seedlings are still strengthening their stems and this is a new strong element being introduced. By the third, the trays will spend the night outside on the deck. [Dad walking in up to his ankles] The fourth day the trays make their way closer to the garden and are placed outside, still somewhat protected from winds but are receiving more and more direct sunlight. [Dad walking in further…] By day 5 I have placed the trays to sit directly on top of the soil in their respecting raised beds. [Dad splashing water on his arms to acclimate to the temperature of the water.] They will sit there for another couple of days and by the 7 days I can’t resist the urge to plant [Dad plunging into the water].
Gardening teaches patience, and this is one of those things that you just can’t rush. When you don’t rush the process, you are rewarded with a selection of healthy seedlings that are ready to take up the challenge and become strong healthy plants bearing us delicious produce all season long. I have sown thousands of seeds, many of which didn’t succeed in the early years when I was a little less patient. Seed germination rate can also play a part in your success, as can the soil starter you use, the consistency in watering and other controlled environmental conditions like light and temperature. Which is why every time I do start seedlings and they germinate and I am privileged enough to watch this miracle of life I am in awe. Awed and honor to be a steward of these tiny little everyday miracles, that many people unfortunately overlook or never even consider. I don’t care that science can explain it – it’s still one of the miracles of life.
There is something that’s even more miraculous to me then when you directly have sown seeds outdoors and that when you have started your seedling indoors, nurtured it, hardened it properly and watch your seedling make the transfer successfully into the garden and thrives bearing your wonderful bounties to harvest. This to me is a real sense of accomplishment to it, since making that transfer from indoors to outdoors can be the bump in the road for a lot of gardeners, including myself.
Don’t rush things! Moving is stressful!
1. Day 1-2 should be a day that is mild outside, not extremely hot. Take your seedlings to a protected area from the wind; place your tray in a box for added protect from potential wind and will help provide some shade from sunlight. No direct sunlight, look for a semi-shaded area with indirect sunlight. Bring plants in before sunset for the night.
2. Days 3-5 remove trays from box and increase their exposure to sunlight and wind gradually, rotating the trays so that different sides of the plants are exposed to the sun helps them not become leggy. Plants should spend the nights outside from now on.
3. Days 6-7 place your trays in the garden beds where you plan to plant them, sitting the trays directly on top of the soil.
4. After day 7, have fun transplanting your seedlings